The inside story on Newburgh Priory

Newburgh Priory is a stunning but little-known stately home with plans for a 21st century update. It also offers festive fun, a family curse and the headless body of Oliver Cromwell. Sharon Dale reports.

Christmas is coming and Stephen Wombwell is preparing for a punishing 24-day stint without a break from work.

Running his stately home, Newburgh Priory, and the surrounding estate is always demanding. It's not unusual for Stephen to be at his desk replying to emails at 2am, but the festive period is extra busy.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It begins with the renowned charity Christmas Fair, which runs from November 29 to December 1. It coincides with the opening of Stephen's Christmas shop and the selling of homegrown fir and spruce trees from the floodlit ruined wing of the 12th century priory.

“It's hard work but it's also lots of fun and at least I get to see my friends because they come down to the fair and then they'll choose a Christmas tree. We might throw their children in the tree netting machine because what child doesn't love being netted?” he says, exhibiting the great sense of humour and jolly veneer that helps him cope with the onerous responsibility of ensuring Newburgh's survival.

His family has owned the priory, near the pretty North Yorkshire village of Coxwold, since 1538 when Henry VIII sold it to one of his chaplains, Anthony de Bellasis, as a “thank you” for helping with the dissolution.

His nephew, Sir William, converted it into a home and there followed a procession of illustrious incumbents with armies of servants and abundant riches. They would no doubt be horrified at the very thought of getting stuck in and flogging fir trees but times have changed and Stephen, 41, who took over in 2010, is hands-on because he has to be. Every penny counts when you have to maintain a gargantuan and important piece of history without vast wealth.

“Many of my ancestors were rich but that kind of money has gone,” he says.

The running costs at Newburgh Priory, which stretches to 35,000 sq ft, are £100,000 a year and that doesn't include improvements.

Stephen, who lives in an 8,000 sq ft section of the house, estimates that he could easily spend £26m on restoration projects. Replacing the roof on the long gallery alone cost £2.5m as the walls holding it up had to be strengthened. Leading the valleys in the roof cost £350,000 and now the lake needs dredging at a cost of £250,000.

There are no cheap fixes in a place like this. His great uncle Malcolm tried a few in the 1960s when he was eking out a government restoration grant. Asphalt on part of the roof didn't stand the test of time while the cheap plaster in some rooms is cracking.

“He did have permission to knock the place down after it was badly smoke-damaged in a fire in 1947 but he decided to restore it and he really brought the place back to life,” says Stephen, who keeps staff to a minimum. A cleaner comes to the house three times a week and there are two gardeners who tend the 40 acres of gardens and grounds, a property manager, a handyman and a part-time woodman.

“The rest is done by me with help from my family who do it for love,” he says.

Income from the tenanted farms and properties on the 6,000-acre estate, rent from a shoot and a small glamping site fund the house, although Stephen's ambition is to make the priory pay for itself. He has ambitious plans to boost the number of weddings and events, which are popular thanks to the romance of the historic building and its quiet and incredibly beautiful rural setting.

Opening the house to the public between April and June doesn't generate much revenue.

“We are a fairly well-kept secret and I have to be realistic in that we can't compete with the big houses like Chatsworth and Castle Howard, which have shops and restaurants,” says Stephen.

Yet Newburgh Priory is far more interesting than some of the bigger and better-known statelys. One of its attic rooms is home to a stone tomb said to contain Oliver Cromwell's headless body.

His daughter, Mary, married Newburgh's Lord Fauconberg and is said to have paid a bribe for her father's headless corpse to be stolen from the walls of the Tower of London.

A vengeful Charles II had Cromwell's body dug up, beheaded and displayed when he returned from France.

“Mary couldn't get the head, which is now in Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge,” says Stephen.

The remains were hidden in the rafters at Newburgh and family tradition states the tomb must never be opened so no-one can verify whether Cromwell is in it or not.

There's also a chilling “Cursed Room” which was blighted by a maid who put a curse on the family in 1758 when Lord Fauconberg was remodelling Newburgh as a Georgian home. His son fled the fire but left a maid, screaming for help in a nearby room, to perish.

“While dying from terrible burns, she vowed that if her room was renovated the sons and heirs in the family would meet an untimely death. In 1889 Sir George Orby Wombwell thought the curse was poppycock and ordered its restoration.

Soon after work started his eldest son died of an unknown cause, swiftly followed his second son.

“No-one has messed with the family curse since then,” says Stephen, who adds that his parents used it to make him go to bed when he was a boy. “They'd say, ‘Go to bed or we'll redecorate the room', and that worked a treat.”

The rest of the house feels benign and is packed with period features including Jacobean carving, Tudor panelling and what Pevsner described as “one of the finest 17th century fireplaces in Europe”.

The five dusty and dilapidated state bedrooms are also remarkable.

“We were going to restore them in the early 1980s, then we discovered £250,000 of dry rot and that took priority,” says Stephen, who is constantly reminded of his duty via scores of family portraits dating from Tudor times to the present day.

None shirked the responsibility of taking on Newburgh Priory.

His parents took over when he was seven years old. “They did an amazing job getting it on an even keel after a huge inheritance tax bill. I loved growing up here and it's very much a family home,” he says” pointing to the Lego strewn behind the sofa in the drawing room and the marks on the Georgian columns left by stickers.

He has two daughters, Antonia, ten, and Georgie, eight, and his girlfriend has three children.

“We aren't precious. If you wrap these places in cotton wool they become soulless,” he says.

His daughter is next in line to take over.

“There is no pressure for her to do so. These places can be a huge millstone as there's always something going wrong, but Newburgh is a lovely place to live so the advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” says Stephen who hopes to leave his own mark on the family pile.

Building on the success of weddings and events, he wants to convert a stable block into guest accommodation and construct a new wedding venue in the walled garden.

“It's a £4m project and that will be my contribution to the future security of this house,” he says.

* Newburgh Priory Christmas Fair is on Thursday, November 29, 5pm-9pm (tickets £10 to be bought in advance) Friday, November 30, 10am - 5pm; Saturday, December 1, 10am-5pm (tickets £5 on the door).

There is also a talk by artist 
Ed Kluz on Friday, November 30 at 11am, tickets £15, and a wreath-making workshop on Friday at 2.30pm, tickets £40 and on Saturday at 11am, there is a gingerbread house workshop, tickets £15 per child and £30 per adult.

For details contact: [email protected]